Written by Nanospeed
Edited by ToumaFF

Chapter 1 – A Fateful Encounter


When I wake up, the entire bedroom is bitter cold. I instinctively curl up in a ball and tug the loose covers of the thin blanket over my stiff and exposed limbs, but the action does little to warm me up now. My window is obviously shut to keep out the cool November weather, which could only mean that the house's heating system is off. I notice that somehow, cold sweat covers my entire bare back and a sore sensation is building at the back of my throat. Just great, I had to fall ill today out of all days. It's probably the common cold or the flu.

Stifling a yawn, I slowly prop myself up on one elbow. There's enough morning light to view and admire the lustrous metallic object resting on my bedside table. The Nerve Gear: a helmet-like device capable of establishing a direct link to the synapses of the human brain, making it possible to fully dive into a complete virtual world. This system is needed to play the internationally famous, Sword Art Online (SAO), critically acclaimed as the greatest game of all time. One o'clock marks the official launch of its servers, which means that I will finally get to play it at long last.

I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my comfortable slippers. I change into a set of fresh clothes and stretch a bit to warm myself up. Last night, for the second time in my life, I caught a glimpse of a shooting star sailing through the sky. The suburban neighborhood that I live in radiates intense levels of light pollution, making these already lucky sightings even rarer. At the spur of the moment, just before it disappeared, I wished for something really good to happen today. Pretty silly, I guess. Thinking back on it, perhaps I should have wished for a working heater or a cure to the common cold.

I open the door and head downstairs for breakfast. The pleasant smell of hot, delicious food fills the air as I get closer to the kitchen. I can always look forward to something other than cold cereal on Sundays because my cousin, Kirigaya Suguha, likes to cook at this time. Understandable, considering her long and hard training regimens. Also, my aunt and uncle are never home on the weekends, since the former works overtime and the latter works overseas, leaving no one to get angry in case a big mess is accidentally made. We used to freely laugh at such times, but things are different now.

Years ago, Sugu and I were like the closest of siblings. We practically did everything together as little kids. But one day, everything changed when I stumbled upon my erased records on the online national registry. I'm an adopted child. My biological parents were killed in a tragic accident. This simple truth shook me to my core, as if I was out of place, that I didn't belong. In despair, I blocked out the world. Sugu was left with the path I abandoned, the one of a kendo practitioner, the final wish of our dying grandfather. I was really selfish, though she seemed to not hold it against me.

"Good morning!" She says cheerfully. Her persona is literally the polar opposite of mine, outgoing and energetic. Although I don't like to admit it, I am socially awkward and quiet.

"Good morning Sugu," I greet back and force a small smile. My body is still not fully awake. I'm the night owl. She's the early bird. We hardly ever talk.

"The heater is broken," she states in a matter-of-fact tone and returns a natural smile of her own. It compliments her delicate face, fair skin, black hair and eyes as dark as a starless night. We look so very much alike. It's no wonder that total strangers can confuse me for a girl at a distance, which constantly bothers me to no end.

"I noticed," I reply, then cough to purge an itch building in my throat. I should bundle up with more layers and change my thin blankets to thick comforters if I decide to nap later on. "Anyways. May I help out with things here?"

"Yes please," she answers while dicing up vegetables on the cutting board. The white rice, canned meats, soup of the day, and milky hot chocolate seems to be already done. That leaves only one meal item left to prepare, the usual fluffy plain omelet.

"Okay," I say and head to the sink to wash my hands. There's no need to spread the germs around. After that, I add oil to the frying pan, turn up the stove to medium heat and whisk the eggs.

"You had mail the other day. What was in the package?" She speaks up, her question burning with genuine curiosity. In this technological age, non-commercial courier services are almost obsolete. The most recent delivery to the Kirigaya household was Sugu's custom order carbon shinai from a specialist sporting manufacturer almost eight whole months ago.

"Hardware upgrade," I answer honestly. I know that Sugu has absolutely no interest in these kinds of things, but a vague answer or an attempt to change the topic might make me look suspicious. "It's for my old Nerve Gear. Newer Nerve Gear models sold in retail shops now come pre-installed with them."

"Well. What does it do?" She questions with the same level of enthusiasm. I blink twice in surprise and wonder if this is all a joke. How odd. Normally, she would have made a distasteful comment by now. Maybe it's because of all the major news coverage that virtual reality is receiving lately.

"Soul Translation. I believe it's something built way before its time. When I played Sword Art Online in its beta testing phase a few months ago, the expansive virtual world was stunning and beautiful like scenes from a HD TV nature special. However, it's not perfect. The air had no dust, clothing couldn't wrinkle, liquids felt weird, and most objects were immortal."

"Immortal?" She repeats in confusion. Her head tilts, signaling for further elaboration.

"Erm- I guess unbreakable is the right word for it." I say, realizing that she's of course, not too familiar with the technical terminology.

"That makes sense. So how does Soul Translation work?"

"Hmm," I hum, since I don't quite fully understand the theory myself. "I think there's a limit to detail with binary codes and polygons. However, Soul Translators use a different medium that can handle all that overwhelming information. It uses the coding of the human conscience, or in nerdy terms: it replicates the flow of evanescent photons in our brain's microtubules. Everything's rendered down to the molecular level so that you will never notice a difference between real life and- Whoa!"

My explanation is cut short by the fluffy plain omelet burning on the unattended frying pan. I rush to the stove and hastily turn it off, before attempting to salvage what's left of the charred mess.

"Careful. I don't feel like cleaning up a mess today," she exclaims. One hand covers her mouth in an attempt to stifle a giggle from my fumbling reaction.

"Me too," I warily reply, but for an entirely different reason. I stoically turn back to face her. "What's with the questions? I thought you hated this stuff?"

Her expression slightly wavers at the shift to a tense atmosphere, but she quickly regains her composure. Suddenly, she looks way too mature for a girl one year younger than me. "You've changed you know? Not on the outside, but on the inside. I've ignored it till now, but not anymore. I know that you have a mask over your heart to hide some sort of deep secret. I want to understand. How can you spend countless hours on that thing? Is it safe? What if they rewrite your memories? What if something bad happens?"

The lecture is irritating, especially because I know deep down inside that she's right about my gaming addiction. I can only suspect that her imagination is acting wild again regarding the rest of her worries. Either that, or my aunt put her up to this. "You're starting to sound like your mom." I snap.

"Our mom," she snaps back in an effort to correct me. There's extra emphasis on the word 'our'. Her words are laced with hurt.

I sigh in frustration, because it wasn't my intention to offend her. At the very least, we're arguing like close siblings again. "Look, you're not the first, nor the last, to express their fears. I understand, it's the new and unknown. Federal governments around the globe have conducted extensive research on the matter and has deemed it safe for public use. Evanescent photon manipulation cannot erase or rewrite memories. So relax, okay?"

"You can't be completely sure," she mutters, her volume falling to an almost inaudible whisper. "There may be other bad things. Maybe we aren't seeing the entire picture."

"Sugu-"

She holds up one hand to silence me, inferring that she still has some important things to say. Her other hand reaches for a mug of hot chocolate and she downs it in one gulp. Seconds pass, then she stares at me straight into the eyes. "Come back to kendo. You were really good at it, really strong too. All you need is to give up your fake games and get some practice in. Before you know it, you'll be competing in tournaments too. We can be like before. Please."

I don't know how to respond to the pleading. Honestly, it's impossible for me. Sugu is a prodigy, a regional champion and a national quarter-finalist in our age bracket division. Our grandfather used to beam with pride with her accomplishments, but he always scorned me with looks of disappointment. I never want to feel that way again. "I'm sorry Sugu, but it's real. Real enough to me. It's the place where I feel most alive."

Another long awkward silence passes. As if ignoring my answer, she moves around to set down the plates and utensils. She then takes a seat at the dining table and slowly shakes her head. "I see. Then I'm going out to the mall with my friends to pick up a pre-ordered item later. I'll probably be back for lunch, but I will head out again for training."

I give a simple nod of acknowledgement and sit down too. I eat slowly, lost thought. My answer is obviously one that she didn't want to hear. Sugu constantly makes all of this effort to reconnect and I always turn her down. Have I really changed that much? Have I always placed my own feelings first? Maybe just this once, I should suck it up and accept her offer. Perhaps things will be different this time around.

I look up with intents to apologize, but no one is there to listen. Without even realizing it, my younger cousin already left the room.

Yet another unpleasant feeling builds up within me, forcing out a violent dry cough. It looks like my illness is taking a turn for the worse. Opting not to follow Sugu, I instead head to the medicine cabinet. The tablespoon of viscous syrup (non-drowsy formula) tastes bitter and nasty, but I guess I deserve it. I reluctantly pass the rest of my time doing the dishes, taking a long shower, folding the laundry, tinkering with the heater in the basement, scheduling an appointment with a furnace technician by phone, and finishing up my homework.

I skip lunchtime when Sugu does not return from her errands, a text message stating that she will be out for a little longer. It's okay, I wasn't feeling that hungry anyways. I return to my bedroom and lock the door. The latest edition of MMO Stream catches my attention for a bit, but I end up spending the final hour on a popular weekly news magazine. The top article is of an interview with Director Kayaba Akihiko, the genius creator of SAO and the Nerve Gear. He founded a multi-billion dollar company, Argus Industries, from the ground up. A true role model, but also an enigma. Nobody really knows what his goals and ambitions are, because he prefers to remain hidden from public eye.

The coughing becomes more frequent and I groan at how fragile life can really be at times. Maybe I should consider resting my own body to get better soon. With that in mind, I hop into bed and reach for my own personal Nerve Gear, while taking care not to accidentally pull out the power supply or Ethernet cable. As I place the helmet over my head, a small smile forms on my lips when the internal digital clock shows me that it is a minute before one o'clock. The game servers are about to open. All I need is one simple voice command to continue:

"Link start!"

The Nerve Gear breathes to life as a mechanical hum momentarily fills my ears. My vision fades to darkest black, then to the purest white, then to a rush of every color imaginable. A foreign feeling washes over me as my central nervous system reroutes to the Argus Industries Network, and the real world slowly fades away. A virtual window prompts me for my login information, to which I mentally input my unique username and password. After that, a matrix of data flickers into my consciousness as everything begins to boot-up.

«Touch. Sight. Hearing. Taste. Smell. - Sense Reproduction Engines OK...»

«Language: Japanese. - Real Time Translation Program ACTIVE... »

«Character Avatar Creation: Beta-test data still available: Kirito (M). Would you like to load it?»

I accept without hesitation. The character avatar is simply your body in the virtual world. Creating it from scratch is like a tedious surgical procedure, but enjoyable in its own right. People can be anything they choose to be. Customizations range from age, gender, facial features, body proportions, hair color, eye color, etc. Also, an easy option to quickly randomly generate a character avatar exists for those who don't care much for it. However, I already have a ridiculously tall and masculine one from the beta-test, which I really happen to like. So why not take it?

«Welcome to Sword Art Online!»

As if snapping out of a long daydream, I slowly open my eyes in a daze. I'm not in my bedroom anymore. This place is the central square of the City of Beginnings, a place of arrival for new players. It's like the heart of a downtown shopping district, where crowds bustle about the surrounding majestic medieval structures. I stare in awe between the wandering stray animals, the town criers, the blacksmithing hammers, the water in the marble fountain, the fireworks in the sky, and minstrels playing background music. There isn't a trace of artificiality anywhere at all. So this is the true power of Soul Translation.

I clench my fists in anticipation. I'm finally back in this world. I make a mental note to not forget about my real body that I left on the other side. I should logout later and regularly for snacks, water and medicine. Without wasting anymore time, I run out pass all of the houses, inns, restaurants and vendors. I weave through strolling groups of amazed casual players and take shortcuts through the cobblestone alleyways. Beyond the fortified stone walls is an expansive green meadow and the first suitable hunting ground to venture in, probably full of resources yet to be taken.

"Hey! Wait! You there!" The loud voice of a stranger calls out from behind. It's a man in his late teens or early twenties bearing the rugged looks of a certain movie actor. He's wearing the standard beginner's clothing, which consists of plain leather boots, a cotton tunic and cotton pants. Although, he also possesses an uncommon bandana over his flowing red hair.

"Yes?" I answer cautiously. Why did this person follow me this far out to the city outskirts?

The man jogs up to me and hunches over to catch his breath. "Whew. Too fast. You move like you've been here before. You must have been in the beta-test right?"

"Y-yeah." I reply honestly. A few months ago, I was lucky enough to win a contest that granted me a beta-tester key. To my knowledge, only one-thousand of these coveted items were up for grabs in Japan, each granting exclusive early access to SAO. I've logged in hundreds of hours, but I can confidently say that I've only seen a meager fraction of what this near infinite game has to offer. Still, the wealth of knowledge that I have acquired back then should help give me a head start towards becoming a top player now.

"Today's obviously my first day," he exclaims and pats me on the shoulder like I'm his new best friend. "Show me the basics okay?"

"Uh- Um," I'm at a loss for words. I wonder how he could be so shameless and so demanding to a person he hadn't met before.

"I'm begging you," he says and clasps his hands together. At least this person is humble, or desperate. "My name's Klein. Nice to meet you."

Ah, what the heck. SAO is a role-playing game (RPG) after all. There's no need to act so hostile to a player potentially living hundreds of miles away. "I'm Kirito. Erm- Why don't we visit the weapon shop?"

At the forge, I buy a «Starter One-handed Straight Sword», because I was adept with this particular weapon type in the beta-test. Klein hesitantly buys the «Starter One-handed Curved Sword» on a whim, because it looks like an "epic" samurai's katana. Oh well, if he doesn't like it, he can exchange it for an axe or a spear later. These weapons are quite cheap and generic, allowing for poor and new players alike to experiment a bit. After that, we exit through the iron gates of the city and cross the oak drawbridge into the green meadows.

Similar to any traditional RPG, monsters inhabit the wilderness and yield «Exp», «Col» and «Items» upon death. Accumulating «Exp», experience points, is the real world equivalent to physically training your body to become more powerful. «Col» is the currency of SAO. Depending on the value, coins and ingots may be minted in copper, bronze, silver, gold, platinum or mithril. «Items» can be anything from consumables like food or potions, to equipment like plate armor or picks, to raw material like spider silk or leather hide.

"Gwah- right in the crotch," Klein cries out in pain as a level 1 E-class monster, the «Frenzy Boar», knocks him aside with a charging trample attack. Level is the measure of a player or monster's power in SAO, which starts as low as level one as the weakest. Class is the measure of a monster's rarity, which starts at E as common to A as rare. Apparently, there are rumors on the internet forums of the S-class, or secret rare, which drops incredible items of priceless value. I doubt I'll ever see one in the future.

"Give me a break," I mutter with my hands at my waist. I close my eyes and sigh at the unnecessary drama. Me, Klein and the wild animal are level 1, which means that any damage taken is minimal. Even if Klein were to be hit with an apocalypse bearing meteor right now, the game's pain absorber program will let him feel nothing more than a pins and needles prickling sensation. "You shouldn't be feeling any pain."

He blinks upon the revelation and instantly calms down. "Oh, yeah. You're right. I guess it's just a habit."

"I told you. What's important is your initial movements," I say, referring to SAO's «Sword Skills», which are powerful attacks preprogrammed into the game servers. Every skill is unique, requiring its own prerequisite movements to activate and offering a mix of extra offensive power, defensive tenacity or tactical utility in a combat situation.

"Sure, I get that. But it keeps moving around," Klein whines.

"You should a feel a force building up inside if you properly activate the skill. Don't resist. The system assist will guide your character avatar to execute the rest and the technique will connect." For visual demonstration, I pick up a rock and take the stance to aim. Energy builds up in my arms and I allow the system assist to take over. The rock glows with a blue ethereal sheen and my arm automatically launches it with the force of a speeding bullet. The projectile whistles through the air and makes a satisfying thump as it scores a headshot on the frenzy boar, successfully grabbing its attention.

"Wow," Klein breathes out at the display. "But, why can't I just swing my blade around with my own ability, like in real life fencing or kendo?"

"Those are called normal attacks. It has greater freedom and versatility, but it lacks bonuses granted by the game server. Combinations of both «Sword Skills» and normal attacks are essential to becoming an advanced player," I answer while sidestepping the frenzy boar's trampling charge. The blue leathery creature circles around for a lighter attack and I block its sharp ivory tusks easily with my sword. Hot vapor blows out its snout like steam, and its red eyes stare up at me in deep primal anger.

"Alright. So I have to master this then no matter what," Klein yells with determination as he readies himself into a stance. "Initial movements. Initial movements. Initial movements," he repeats to himself, as if it's lecture material to be regurgitated on a written exam. Suddenly, his eyes light up and I can only suspect that he's finally pieced everything together. The curved blade in Klein's hands begin to glow with a solar red light.

He's now ready for first blood. I kick the frenzy boar away and its aggression diverts towards Klein. The wild animal scratches the soft earth with its hoof in preparation for another charge, but it's useless. Klein unleashes a single vicious hit that visually takes the form of a slicing maelstrom. It's known commonly as the «Sword Skill: Reaver». The frenzy boar bounces off the ground several times and its HP (hit points) bar value depletes to zero. With its virtual life force gone, the corpse shatters into countless particles with the reverberating sound of breaking glass.

Klein is in silent shock, as if he achieved the impossible. Then, joy washes all over his face and he strikes a victory pose. "All right!" He roars, like a protagonist from an action film.

I can't blame him for the ruckus. I remember that triumphant feeling from when I had slain my first monster. "Congrats," I say and give him a high five. Though after a few seconds, I can't help but burst his bubble. "Unfortunately, that boar's about as weak as slimes."

"Eh- Seriously?! I thought it was a mid-level boss or something."

"Of course not," I reply and roll my eyes. In the distance a few more frenzy boars spawn, appearing out of thin air to replace its fallen comrade. Despite their intimidating appearance, these monsters are born to be easy prey for eager learning beginners.

Klein shrugs and starts to take different forms and stances, observing if there are other initial movements that would activate «Reaver». "This is pretty amazing Kirito. Hey, there's a lot of other skills right? Like fishing, mining, woodcutting, tailoring, crafting, blacksmithing, cooking, farming, alchemy-"

"There's no magic," I interject. In traditional RPGs, there's always a mage that remains behind the vanguard, firing lock-on spells with perfect accuracy and precision. In SAO, only certain intelligent monsters possess exclusive access to spells of holy light, evil shadow or the four natural elements. These attacks do not lock-on. It's fair and balanced that way. Technically, there are rare artifacts such as «Teleport Crystals» or «Status Ailment Cure Crystals» that drop from stronger monsters further into the game, but I'll explain it to him on another day.

"An RPG without magic? That's a pretty bold decision," Klein says and flicks his wrist, which causes «Reaver» to go off again for the second time. There's a wide grin on his face when the glow of pure red light pulsates through the grey, dull curved sword. By trial and error, he has found another way to activate the same sword skill all by himself. He's actually starting to look like a true samurai warrior with all of that extra confidence.

"Isn't it more fun to move your body as you fight?" I ask, already knowing the answer. It's quite obvious that he's enjoying the feel of a melee weapon with or without magic.

"You bet!"

"Alright then. Let's hunt for the next frenzy boar."

ooo

The afternoon delivers a brilliant sunset, its gentle rays reflect with a shimmering sparkle against the cascading waterfalls falling from distant floating islands, and the orange twilight skies cause flocks of birds, winged horses and wyverns to migrate to destinations unknown. After many hours of earning «Exp», we decide to take refuge in the part of the meadow encircled by six stone pillars, almost like a miniature Stonehenge. Similar to cities and towns, this spot is a «Safe Area», where monsters cannot normally enter due to restrictions set by the game.

"Whew," Klein breathes out and collapses in exhaustion onto the soft, lush carpet of grass. "I still can't believe it, no matter how many times I see it. That we're still in a game. It's really all amazing. Seriously, I'm glad I was born in this time."

"You make a big deal out of everything," I reply jokingly and lean against a stone pillar. Still, I can't deny that I feel the exact same way.

"Give me a break. It's my first Full Dive!" He laughs.

Despite the technology being in its infancy stage, virtual reality has taken the world by storm. Governments and well-known corporations have developed the Nerve Gear for other applications, such as in the field of healthcare where bedridden patients suffering from autoimmune diseases can still experience life like never before. In the field of education, teachers can take students on virtual field trips to the Egyptian pyramids or the Roman coliseums. There are even accusations of the military having secret dealings with Argus Industries, where scientists are attempting to turn artificial intelligence into a weapon.

"Really? This your first time using the Nerve Gear?" I ask.

"Yeah! Me and my friends camped in front of the store overnight to each snag one of those ten-thousand first edition collectors copies. The line-up went down for blocks and there were SAO representatives organizing games and concerts as entertainment. It was definitely fun. But how about you? Aren't you the most lucky? I heard that beta-tester copies came with all this free stuff, like replica swords."

"I wish," I mutter silently, since I didn't exactly receive any special treatment. In the beta-phase server stress tests, SAO administrators claimed the official release would equally accommodate the one-thousand original beta-testers and ten-thousand new players. Instead, millions of standard copies have been printed and sold out all over the globe. How has SAO changed to accommodate such a large population number? Are there multiple servers with one starting city each? Or is there one super server with multiple starting cities?

"How far did you get into the beta?" Klein asks, snapping me away from my thoughts.

"With a couple of months, we got to floor 8. This time around it'll take less than a month," I answer optimistically. With such a large number of dedicated players, anything is possible.

"You're really into this," Klein chuckles at my response. His tone shows mild amusement. Maybe because it looks like I'm the one now making such a big deal out of something.

I draw my sword and admire it against the light of the setting sun. "To be honest, during the beta-test. SAO was all I thought about, all day and night. In this virtual world, a strong will and a single sword can take you anywhere you want to go. You can't help but feel so alive," I say and pause to take a few practice swings. The blade whistles as it cuts through the empty air. "Anyways, we have 95% of the «Exp» needed to promote to level 2. Want to hunt some more?"

"Of course, I'd love to!" Klein exclaims, but the noise of his rumbling stomach cuts him off. "Ugh- But I feel really hungry. I'm logging out for a pizza delivery scheduled to arrive at my house for 5:30."

Right, that reminds me, my real body may be feverish under several layers of clothing under thick comforters. I should logout right now to make sure I'm not overheating. The experience of being badly dehydrated from excessive sweating or forgetting to drink water, is definitely not a pleasant experience. Considering that I skipped lunch, cooking an early dinner isn't that bad of an idea either. "You're so prepared."

He grins at the compliment and stands up to brush the grass off his clothes. "After I've eaten, I'll be meeting some people that I know from another game. Do you want to hang out with us?"

"Um," I hesitate in my response. Should I say yes? By some miracle, I get along with Klein pretty well because of his easygoing personality, despite my poor first impression of him. There's no guarantee that it will be the same for all his friends. For some reason, I feel like there's a higher chance of not getting along in a group, and as a result of the fallout, I may lose my friendship with Klein as well.

Klein seems to register my unconfident reaction and shakes his head vigorously.

"Of course, if you don't want to now, that's okay. I can always introduce you to them another time."

Well that's a relief. "Yeah. Sorry. And thanks."

Klein reaches out an arm and puts it around my shoulder reassuringly. "Hey! That's my line. One day, I'll repay for sharing your leading edge knowledge with me. If there's anything you need, just send me an online private message. Thank you so much man. I'll see you around."

We shake hands. "Of course we will."

After waving farewell, I put my right index finger to my thumb and pull downwards. This swiping action activates the main menu window on a holographic window with the sound of a ringing chime. There are five touch screen options: «Inventory and Equipment», «Friends and Guild», «Messenger and Chat», «Maps and Quest», and «Settings and Logout». I select the last option, an icon of gears, which enlarges a list of other sub-menus. Here, I look for the most obvious «Logout» button to disconnect my mind from the game servers and return to the comforts of my own bedroom. But, it isn't there...

"Huh. There's no logout button," Klein remarks in tone of puzzlement, which confirms that this oddity is not a figment of my imagination. "Kirito! I can't find it! It's really not here!"

"Yeah. I know," I say and nod my head, although it feels slightly annoying to agree so easily. To make sure it isn't a random fluke, I refresh my main menu window to double check and even triple check, but the results are still the same. "Common sense tells me that this is an error or bug. Let's contact a Game Master. If there's anybody who knows what's going on, it would be them."

Game masters are paid employees working under SAO server administrators. Their responsibilities range from banning malicious players to dealing with any unforeseen technical difficulties. I select the «Call GM» option under the «Settings and Logout» sub-menu, but there is no live response. Eventually an automated message appears. "We are currently experiencing an abnormally high volume of calls right now. Please wait for one of our customer representatives to assist you. Sorry for the inconvenience. Estimated time left: Undefined."

"Well, it's the first day so these sort of bugs could occur. Around about now, the GMs should be crying by now from the number of messages flooding in," Klein muses calmly, while rubbing his chin.

I begin to impatiently tap my foot. Players have real life expectations to live up to. Imagine all the lawsuits from people missing critical exams, medications, business meetings and family obligations. The very future of virtual reality may be crippled from an accident as bad as this. Klein may not fully understand the consequences yet. "Is that all right for you to stand around like that? You said you ordered a pizza."

I sigh from watching him jump up, his eyes widening in panic. "Oh no! My anchovy pizza and ginger ale! There has to be another way out of this. Return! Log out! Escape! Control, alt, delete! Link end!"

"There's no voice command to end the game," I bluntly reply after watching him shout and make silly flailing motions. "The instruction manual doesn't mention any methods regarding emergency access terminations."

"How about a more direct approach then? I'll try removing the Nerve Gear directly," Klein says as his hands grasp at open air overhead. Instead, he just knocks off his bandana, which falls slowly to the ground. "Oh. I was sure that would work."

"The Nerve Gear prevents you from moving your real body laying back home," I state while pointing to my neck, specifically the spinal cord. "Every non-vital signal is cut off. Think of it as a safety feature that will prevent any real world accidents, such as banging your arm on a bedside table or falling down the stairs. I guess that someone has to forcefully remove the Nerve Gear for us. A friend or family member is bound to realize that something is wrong when we remain missing for far too long."

"But, I live alone," Klein mutters dejectedly. His arms falling in defeat. "How about you?"

"Well-" I pause, a bit hesitant to tell the whole truth. "My younger sister will definitely notice if I don't come down for dinner."

"What?" Klein grabs my shoulder and looks at me with sparkling eyes. "How old is your sister?"

I give Klein a death glare and push his head away with one palm. "Don't you dare even think about it. She's in a sports club and hates games. She's got nothing in common with guys like us. More importantly. Don't you find this all weird?"

"Well yeah. But, all we can really do now is sit back and wait."

"...!"

Without any warning, a deafening noise echoes throughout the empty skies. It sounds like a giant bell that rings in long, low notes that instigates a serious, ominous feeling. My thoughts begin to race, trying to figure out what's going on, but before I can even utter out a single word, something unexpected happens. A pillar of familiar blue light envelops my body, its brightness forcing me to partially shield my eyes with an arm. My vision of the surrounding meadow deforms into an indistinct blur and then disappears in one final, brilliant flash.

The strong lights subside and the tolling bell ceases. I open my eyes and realize that we are back at the central square of the City of Beginnings, but neither me or Klein possess a «Teleport Crystal» for instantaneous travel. More players warp in due to a mass recall, which could only be the result of an SAO administrator's intervention. The players' reactions range from confusion to anger. Some are even yelling, their collective voices getting increasingly louder, demanding information regarding their missing logout button.

"Ah, above us! Look to the sky!" One voice in the crowd bellows louder than the rest.

Like everyone else, I look up to see a few holographic panels each in the shape of a crimson hexagon. Upon closer inspection, two messages in bold letters alternate between each panel: 'Warning' and 'System Announcement'. The crimson hexagons rapidly multiply to eclipse the entire sky and a liquid resembling blood begins to ooze out of it. This liquid pools down, but it doesn't fall all the way to the ground. Instead, with a flicker of static electricity, the liquid morphs into a hovering twenty meter towering figure wearing a Game Master's sanguine robe with embroidered gold edges. There's no face to be seen under the cloth hood, only rising black smoke like an empty shadow.

"Players, I welcome you all to my world."

The anonymous GM outstretches his arms in a dramatic fashion and his authoritative voice causes an unifying silence to fall upon the crowd. I don't understand. Is this some sort of grand opening event?

"My name is Kayaba Akihiko. As of this moment, I am the sole person in control."

This fact is quite a surprise. I guess I'm used to seeing him as a thin man in a lab coat, true to the pictures in the magazines. There are a few anxious murmurs questioning if that really is the director of Argus Industries. If he is, then it's within his power to trivially log us all out in the blink of an eye. So why isn't he doing so?

"I'm sure you've already noticed that the logout button is missing from the main menu, but this is not a defect in the game. It is a feature of Sword Art Online."

With a white gloved hand, he opens the master main menu to reveal that the logout button is still missing. This is all intentional. I suddenly recall my conversation with Sugu and realize that something is indeed very wrong.

"No one from the outside can shut down or remove your Nerve Gear, more specifically, dislocation from an outside source of electricity for more than ten minutes, being cut off from the network servers for more than two hours, or any attempt to unlock, dismantle, or destroy the Nerve Gear. Should any of this be attempted, the transmitters in the Nerve Gear will emit a powerful microwave, destroying your brain and thus ending your life."

"What's he talking about? He's gotta be joking! Right Kirito?" Asks Klein in a panic. Shock and disbelief is written all over his face from the apparent death threat.

"He's right that transmitter signals work just like microwaves. If the safety were disabled, the build up of thermal energy from the high-frequency heating can fry a brain," I reply in fear. This is no longer a game anymore.

"Unfortunately, several players' friends and families have ignored this warning and attempted to do so anyways. As a result, 2.13% of our players are gone forever, from both the virtual world and the real world."

No way. That has to be a lie. 2.13% is nothing short of mass murder. I notice in the corner of my eye that one group is on the verge of an emotional breakdown. They attempt to exit the Central Square, but an invisible barrier blocks their escape, forcing them to listen to rest of the speech.

"As you can see, news organizations across the globe are reporting this, including the deaths. Thus, you can assume the danger of a Nerve Gear being removed is now minimal. In the two hours that I have allotted, all of you will be transported to hospitals or similar institutes to receive the best possible treatment. The Soul Translator driver will also accelerate your flow of time here to be seven times faster than normal. As long as you're here, you will not have to worry about your real bodies on the other side."

Several screens appear and begin to orbit the towering sanguine robed figure. Every satellite channel is in a different language with a different dramatic headline, but every message is ultimately the same. Millions of SAO players are being held hostage by a cyber terrorist, his motives are unknown. Government funding is being allotted to victim care in addition to Argus Industries' wealth. On one screen, I spot someone crying next to boy with a Nerve Gear on his way to the emergency room. Is this what Sugu and my aunt- no, my mother, are experiencing right now?

"Remember this clearly. Pain absorbers are now disabled and there are no longer any methods to revive someone within the game. If your HP bar drops to zero, your character avatar will be forever lost. And simultaneously, the Nerve Gear will destroy your brain. There is only one means of escape, defeat the final boss on floor 100."

All of the television screens disappear and a scaled down model of the realized world, Aincrad, appears before him. An existence the size of countries- no, continents, fitting in a massive iron-and-stone castle defying space and time. Permanent death- Just how many times have I died in the beta-test? Even with sheer numbers, it may be near impossible now.

"Finally, I've gifted a present to your item storage. Please see for yourselves."

I obediently open up my main window and select the first option, an icon of a character. In my inventory list is a new item called the «Hand Mirror» and I immediately select the «Make Into Object» option. The mirror materializes in my hand and I see my customized masculine face on its reflective surface. Every other player seems to have received the same object as well. But before I can question why, another pillar of light envelops me. There are shrieks and cries of surprise as more lights capture every other player also.

"Are you okay Kirito?" Asks Klein in concern.

"Y-yeah," I look up to see a total unrecognizable stranger. But his voice, cloth armor and even bandana belong to the old Klein. Is my mind playing tricks on me?

"Who are you?"

"And who are you?" He questions back.

I look at my hand mirror and see that familiar delicate face, black hair, fair skin and dark eyes. It's my real face that I tried so hard to escape from. "Ah. It's me."

"You're Kirito?" The famous actor lookalike with flowing hair now resembles a bandit with messy hair. I can only assume that is Klein's true form from real life. "How?"

"Calibrations," I deduce out loud, observing that the players around me have also transformed from flawless supermodels to very ordinary looking people. "The Nerve Gear covers your entire head with a high density signaling device, so it can figure out what you're face looks like. The Soul Translator can decipher the evanescent photons in our brain, including our genetic data blueprints, which is used in calculating our real height and body shape. It was an unproven theory, till now."

"That makes sense," he says while roughly scratching his head at the absurdity of it all. "ARGH- But seriously, why?!"

"Right now, you're probably wondering: 'Why?' Why would Kayaba Akihiko, creator of Sword Art Online and the Nerve Gear, do this? I did this all for one reason. To create this world and see it through. At long last, everything has been realized. This concludes the official tutorial for the official launch of Sword Art Online. Good luck, players."

Anger flares up within me for admiring Kayaba Akihiko as my role model, but because of that, I can tell that this situation is not fake. So now, this is our only reality then. It turns out that we cannot escape our fragility and mortality even in the virtual world. If I die in the game, I die in real life.

The ghostly sanguine cloak melts back into a liquid and rises back into the sky. Seconds later, the crimson hexagons disappear in the same manner that it appeared, leaving behind a familiar, normal afternoon sky. The minstrels resume playing their music, overpowering the silence of the speechless players. Then all order degenerates to chaos after one hand mirror breaks on the ground. Countless voices scream, yell, beg and curse out in anger, sadness and despair. The surging crowd pushes and clamors for attention, demanding to logout. It's like the beginning of a riot.

I notice that the barrier trapping us in the central square is fading away. We need to get out of here. I grab Klein's arm. "Follow me!"

After distancing ourselves safely away from the chaos. I turn to face Klein and bluntly reveal my plan. "Listen to me and calm down. I'm heading to the next village right now and I want you to come with me. If what he said is true, then the only way to survive in this world is by making yourself as strong as possible. The players who realize this will soon hunt in the fields around this city, resulting in a fierce competition for «Exp», «Col» and «Items». You'll be waiting forever for new monsters to respawn. The next village is empty and our training should be efficient. I know all the paths and dangerous areas. Even at level 1, I can get us there safely."

"B- But you know that I spent a whole night to buy this with my friends from another game. They're probably out there, in the plaza. I can't leave them."

I look down dejectedly. I really want to take Klein's friends, but I don't know if I can protect two or even one extra traveler. If they die, how can I live with myself? It's such a heavy burden. I shake my head, I couldn't.

"Sorry. I can hardly ask you for anything else, can I? So don't worry about it. Go to the next village. I used to run a guild in my last game. I can use what you taught me to get by," Klein says with that admirable confidence, his hands at his waist.

"Alright. Then let's say our goodbyes here. If something happens, send me a message." As the words leave my mouth, I get a gnawing feeling that I'm going to regret this decision later.

"Will do."

"Okay, goodbye Klein," I turn and begin to slowly walk away. Unlike our previous casual farewell almost twenty minutes ago, I feel like this one is more on a sad note.

"Kirito!" He calls out. I stop, hoping he's changed his mind. That's terrible of me, wanting him to choose me over his best friends and I quickly cast out that thought.

"Hey, Kirito. You actually look pretty cool. That's definitely my style."

I force a smile, knowing that our separate paths will both be very dangerous from now on. "And that unkempt face suits you ten times better. Take care of yourself," I yell and will myself to sprint away. After several steps, I turn one last time to see an empty street. My only friend in this world has left. I'm all alone.

I run away, taking the exact same routes as I did hours before. It's darker though, and the quaint lampposts flanking the streets begin to flicker with flame. I know that I have to last through the evening, to stay one step ahead of every other player. Yet, I feel weird. My sprinting pace slows to a stagger. Before I know it, I'm slumping down against the lumber walls of a random inn. I check my HP bar and status condition, which are full and normal respectively. I can only suspect that this terrible, feverish sensation has something to do with my real life body.

This is bad. I can't even drag myself up, let alone make it out past the gates into the wilderness now. I open my main menu window and select the «Messenger and Chat». I select Klein's name with intent to send a private text and call him back, but I can't even muster the stamina to type out more than three letters. If things are that bad on the other side, I can only hope that Sugu or my aunt is rushing me to the hospital at this very moment. Otherwise, I may very well be the next casualty of this twisted death game.

I can feel my grip on consciousness fading, but I resist, praying that Klein would find me or that Sugu would somehow safely disconnect me. None of these happen, instead I hear someone call out, but the voice sounds so far away, as though in a dream. Then, all of a sudden, a girl with chestnut brown hair and hazel eyes is standing over me. Her expression is lined with worry, but even so, with her features glowing in the afternoon sun, to my fading senses, she looks simply dazzling. For reasons beyond my comprehension, I smile broadly and genuinely. I guess wishing for something good to happen today did pay off after all.

Everything then fades to black...